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Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008

Pigs on Ice’s Punk Spectacle

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   The idea of punk rock as an antidote to bloated, spectacle-ridden rock 'n' roll has become a standard trope in many versions of popular music history. This stripped-down, simplistic style of play, conventional wisdom tells us, came along to cure the perceived excesses of classic rock and rid the world of the fashion-first consciousness of pop. In the United States, the rise of hardcore punk stretched this belief to its extremes, while bands such as Fugazi have made the commitment to anti-fashion a cornerstone of their identity. To focus on anything other than the music detracted from the message, revealing a superficiality that had little place in a genre that has often struggled for respectability.

  Yet throughout the evolution of American underground music there has been a series of artists who have never forgotten the value of the spectacle. Bands such as The Misfits, Scratch Acid, The Big Boys and The Butthole Surfers all managed to write great songs while simultaneously turning their live performances into not-to-be-missed happenings. It is with this history in mind that one should consider local upstarts Pigs on Ice.

  Like many of their peers in Milwaukee, Pigs on Ice are clearly influenced by the Jesus Lizard and other seminal acts from Touch and Go's back catalog. Yet where bands like Call Me Lightning are pushing this influence in a more melodic direction, Pigs on Ice are intent on upping the chaos and abrasiveness inherent in such a sound. The band seems to understand the need to look beyond Chicago for motivation, and one hears hints of underrated acts such as Drive Like Jehu (California) and Born Against (New Jersey) in their material.

  The influence of bands like Born Against also reaches into the way Pigs on Ice present themselves onstage. Guitarist Brian Whitney reveals to me his admiration of Born Against frontman Sam McPheeters, a born actor who realized that punk rock was at its best when paired with strong visuals.

  Commenting on this aural-visual relationship, bassist Jason Jolly notes, "We're all pretty artistic people. I feed off of artwork and other visual stuff a lot." And while Jolly admits with a laugh that the band is "not going for anything Peter Frampton-esque," he tells me that they want to "give people something a bit different. Each show is a different costume party in a sense." And like many that came before them (including the aforementioned Scratch Acid, who would often pass out LSD at their shows), the band champions the potential of mind-altering drugs to create even more visually stimulating live performances.

  All of this is not to say that the music takes a backseat to the presentation. As Whitney notes, "I think it's definitely important to play well and really represent what you're trying to do musically." Yet the band is not content to merely get on stage and recreate their recorded material: "You can just go home and turn our record up really loud if that's what you want," Whitney adds.

  Instead, the band seems intent on serving as provocateurs in a scene that has settled into a sort of comfortable familiarity. The best punk rock, concludes Jolly, "should have some shock factor to it. Some shock and awe."

  Pigs on Ice perform at the Vault on Wednesday, Sept. 10, as part of a 6 p.m. bill with The Pharmacy, Truthdealer and Geocash.